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Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

Bulfinch's Age of Fable

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ARISTAEUS, THE BEE-KEEPER

Man avails himself of the instincts of the inferior animals forhis own advantage. Hence sprang the art of keeping bees. Honeymust first have been known as a wild product, the bees buildingtheir structures in hollow trees or holes in the rocks, or anysimilar cavity that chance offered. Thus occasionally the carcassof a dead animal would be occupied by the bees for that purpose.It was no doubt from some such incident that the superstitionarose that the bees were engendered by the decaying flesh of theanimal; and Virgil, in the following story, shows how thissupposed fact may be turned to account for renewing the swarm whenit has been lost by disease or accident:

Aristaeus, who first taught the management of bees, was the son ofthe water-nymph Cyrene. His bees had perished, and he resorted foraid to his mother. He stood at the river side and thus addressedher: "O mother, the pride of my life is taken from me! I have lostmy precious bees. My care and skill have availed me nothing, andyou my mother have not warded off from me the blow of misfortune."His mother heard these complaints as she sat in her palace at thebottom of the river, with her attendant nymphs around her. Theywere engaged in female occupations, spinning and weaving, whileone told stories to amuse the rest. The sad voice of Aristaeusinterrupting their occupation, one of them put her head above thewater and seeing him, returned and gave information to his mother,who ordered that he should be brought into her presence. The riverat her command opened itself and let him pass in, while it stoodcurled like a mountain on either side. He descended to the regionwhere the fountains of the great rivers lie; he saw the enormousreceptacles of waters and was almost deafened with the roar, whilehe surveyed them hurrying off in various directions to water theface of the earth. Arriving at his mother's apartment, he washospitably received by Cyrene and her nymphs, who spread theirtable with the richest dainties. They first poured out libationsto Neptune, then regaled themselves with the feast, and after thatCyrene thus addressed him: "There is an old prophet named Proteus,who dwells in the sea and is a favorite of Neptune, whose herd ofsea-calves he pastures. We nymphs hold him in great respect, forhe is a learned sage and knows all things, past, present, and tocome. He can tell you, my son, the cause of the mortality amongyour bees, and how you may remedy it. But he will not do itvoluntarily, however you may entreat him. You must compel him byforce. If you seize him and chain him, he will answer yourquestions in order to get released, for he cannot by all his artsget away if you hold fast the chains. I will carry you to hiscave, where he comes at noon to take his midday repose. Then youmay easily secure him. But when he finds himself captured, hisresort is to a power he possesses of changing himself into variousforms. He will become a wild boar or a fierce tiger, a scalydragon or lion with yellow mane. Or he will make a noise like thecrackling of flames or the rush of water, so as to tempt you tolet go the chain, when he will make his escape. But you have onlyto keep him fast bound, and at last when he finds all his artsunavailing, he will return to his own figure and obey yourcommands." So saying she sprinkled her son with fragrant nectar,the beverage of the gods, and immediately an unusual vigor filledhis frame, and courage his heart, while perfume breathed allaround him.

The nymph led her son to the prophet's cave and concealed himamong the recesses of the rocks, while she herself took her placebehind the clouds. When noon came and the hour when men and herdsretreat from the glaring sun to indulge in quiet slumber, Proteusissued from the water, followed by his herd of sea-calves whichspread themselves along the shore. He sat on the rock and countedhis herd; then stretched himself on the floor of the cave and wentto sleep. Aristaeus hardly allowed him to get fairly asleep beforehe fixed the fetters on him and shouted aloud. Proteus, waking andfinding himself captured, immediately resorted to his arts,becoming first a fire, then a flood, then a horrible wild beast,in rapid succession. But finding all would not do, he at lastresumed his own form and addressed the youth in angry accents:"Who are you, bold youth, who thus invade my abode, and what doyot want of me?" Aristaeus replied, "Proteus, you know already,for it is needless for any one to attempt to deceive you. And doyou also cease your efforts to elude me. I am led hither by divineassistance, to know from you the cause of my misfortune and how toremedy it." At these words the prophet, fixing on him his grayeyes with a piercing look, thus spoke: "You receive the meritedreward of your deeds, by which Eurydice met her death, for inflying from you she trod upon a serpent, of whose bite she died.To avenge her death, the nymphs, her companions, have sent thisdestruction to your bees. You have to appease their anger, andthus it must be done: Select four bulls, of perfect form and size,and four cows of equal beauty, build four altars to the nymphs,and sacrifice the animals, leaving their carcasses in the leafygrove. To Orpheus and Eurydice you shall pay such funeral honorsas may allay their resentment. Returning after nine days, you willexamine the bodies of the cattle slain and see what will befall."Aristaeus faithfully obeyed these directions. He sacrificed thecattle, he left their bodies in the grove, he offered funeralhonors to the shades of Orpheus and Eurydice; then returning onthe ninth day he examined the bodies of the animals, and,wonderful to relate! a swarm of bees had taken possession of oneof the carcasses and were pursuing their labors there as in ahive.

In "The Task," Cowper alludes to the story of Aristaeus, whenspeaking of the ice-palace built by the Empress Anne of Russia. Hehas been describing the fantastic forms which ice assumes inconnection with waterfalls, etc.:

"Less worthy of applause though more admired Because a novelty, the work of man, Imperial mistress of the fur-clad Russ, Thy most magnificent and mighty freak, The wonder of the north. No forest fell When thou wouldst build, no quarry sent its stores T' enrich thy walls; but thou didst hew the floods And make thy marble of the glassy wave. In such a palace Aristaeus found Cyrene, when he bore the plaintive tale Of his lost bees to her maternal ear."

Milton also appears to have had Cyrene and her domestic scene inhis mind when he describes to us Sabrina, the nymph of the riverSevern, in the Guardian-spirit's Song in "Comus":

"Sabrina fair!
Listen where thou art sitting Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave In twisted braids of lilies knitting The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair; Listen for dear honor's sake, Goddess of the silver lake! Listen and save."

The following are other celebrated mythical poets and musicians,some of whom were hardly inferior to Orpheus himself:


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